As Denver Pioneer fans, we’re lucky that we can pop our attention from one successful DU sports program to another. All three fall DU sports (men’s and women’s soccer plus women’s volleyball) earned appearances in their respective NCAA Tournaments this fall. And DU hockey is now ranked seventh in the nation on this bye week, more successful than almost anyone thought they’d be at this point in the season with a young team. Which brings me to the next DU team worthy of more of our attention, the DU women’s basketball team, who have shot out to a 6-1 start to the season and a current national top 40 RPI (#39) ranking, including a current four-game winning streak, as of Sunday, Dec. 2. (Note: Early season RPI rankings are subject to volatile swings, as game data comparisons are still somewhat paltry.)
I would venture a guess that perhaps only 10 percent of our readership here at LetsGoDU have ever been to a live DU women’s basketball game before, and it’s hard to blame them. There is a lot to do in Denver, and the DU women’s basketball teams have been pretty terrible in recent memory, known more for single-digit win/last-place seasons, a fired coach and crowds comprised mostly of friends and family members. Apart from a surprise 2001 NCAA appearance in the early years of the Ritchie Center and a period of decent mediocrity (72-52) under former coach Erik Johnson from 2008-2012, there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about with DU women’s hoops in the last 20 years.
But this year’s DU women’s team is starting to change some of that…
The Pioneers are starting to get noticed in just the second year of the Jim Turgeon coaching era, with home wins over then-#16 RPI Lamar and the latest win, a 29-point win over Loyola Marymount, a top 100 team who had already beaten UCLA and Arizona this year. Moreover, the Pioneers are a very high-scoring bunch, averaging a stunning 90 points per game to date this season, and sport a victory margin of 16 points per game.
And Turgeon, who came to DU from CSU-Pueblo in NCAA Division II two years ago, is doing all this with many of former DU coach Kerry Cremeans’ recruits, who knew only college basketball failure before Turgeon’s arrival. Moreover, he’s done it with a wholly different philosophy of team speed, running the floor at altitude and sharing the ball, instead of Cremeans’ over-reliance on feeding key players, a coaching practice that reportedly lost the locker room and brought an end to her losing tenure at DU. This year, DU has five players averaging double-digit scoring per game, a depth which makes it harder for opponents to key on any one player, and also makes for a much happier DU locker room.
DU’s high scoring attack has been led by Lauren Loven, a junior holdover recruit from Cremeans, who is now flourishing in the ball-sharing Turgeon era, leading the entire nation in made three-pointers (30 in six games through Nov. 30), and is averaging 21 points per game overall to lead the Pioneers in scoring. Additionally, fellow Junior Madison Nelson has exploded recently, with a 20-rebound performance against Lamar and pumping in 28 points in the win over Loyola Marymount. But it’s not just upperclassmen.
Hard-working associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Kayla Ard and the rest of Turgeon’s Denver staff have also brought in some freshmen who are stepping up right away, including Sydney Mech, a local swing player out of Cherry Creek High School who can play either forward or guard, and who is shooting a scorching 50% from the field, averaging 10 points per game. Additionally, talented freshman guard Tsimba Malonga from the Chicago area, who has averaged over 20 minutes per game in the last two games, is being rewarded with more playing time as her contributions increase.
While the 6-1 early record is outstanding, it has been created with a lot of home games, and we’ll soon see what the Pioneers are really made of in the coming weeks. DU is preparing to go on the road for seven of its next eight games, including visits to Wyoming, the University of Nebraska and Colorado State, before heading into the teeth of Summit League play, where top level programs South Dakota and South Dakota State are projected to lead the Summit League.